From acts of kindness to an exciting agri tech business

What started out as acts of kindness for her parents and community has grown into a start-up supporting small-scale farmers

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The saying when you educate a woman you educate a nation fits the founder and CEO of Farmers Assistant, Linah Maphanga, like a glove. The 28-yearold spent most of her university years and her career educating and transforming the lives of hundreds of emerging smallholder farmers in Mpumalanga.  

Today she runs a technology company called Farmers Assistant. She founded the business that aims to connect small-holder farmers with the entire agricultural value chain, connecting them with landowners, equipment, investors and funding institutions through a web platform. 

Maphanga says her job is hard but seeing the gratitude on the faces of the farmers after she has helped them make their dreams a reality is what keeps her going.  

Linah Maphanga managed to create an agri tech business that lets her help more than her own community and family. Photo: Supplied

Sometimes I just want to give up. But every time I want to give up there’s always that one farmer or maybe two that will call and say thank you for the help that you have offered us. So, when I see a farmer get funding and their dream finally comes true, that inspires me to help others,” she says. 

Apart from financial and technical support, her business also assists farmers with issues of land reform. Maphanga and her team of five employees have mapped out all the communal land used for farming or agriculture in South Africa so they can connect people with no jobs or income in rural communities with land they can utilise to earn an income.  

We can’t have land that is not utilised or just sitting there in a particular area when our rural economy is down and there are no jobs,” Maphanga says.  

Helping farmers as a teenager 

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Maphanga was born and bred in Hazyview in Mpumalanga. She has been running her business for only two years but has been helping farmers in the province ever since she was a teenager.  

“I grew up on a farm and growing up there I would always see my parents struggling with market access and expanding their farm. So, I would help them during June holidays. Sometimes helping them meant I had to go and sell the produce to the community and then that is when I learnt how the market works,” she recalls. 

Maphanga’s parents are livestock and crop farmers who farm with cows and grains such as sorghum and maize and sometimes vegetables like spinach, cabbages, and potatoes. They never went to school, so she had to become their bookkeeper and write out their business plans and approach the markets so they could sell their produce.

“I would always get a call from my mom saying that they need a market, or they need to expand…”

I was able to read the invoices, read all those letters of intent and the agreements. I realised that when they wanted to access funding it became a problem because they couldn’t read, and they cannot write so they were excluded just based on that,” she says. 

“They also never knew that you had to have a business banking account. Their business was cash based. By the time they needed to go and get a loan or maybe funding from the department of agriculture it became a problem, because they did not have proof or financial records.” 

She continued being their stand-in bookkeeper until she matriculated from Gezinqondo High School in 2010. After matriculating she went to study a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, maths and geology at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.  

But even throughout her university career she has to come back home and assist her mother. “I would always get a call from my mom saying that they need a market, or they need to expand. So, I would go back and prepare those documents for them and send them to different departments just so that they could get money to expand.” 

Her mother became part of an association of smallholder farmers in Mpumalanga. Soon Maphanga was conducting informal workshops to help other farmers to access funding. She realised the need was much wider than just the smallholders from her community. 

Turning acts of kindness into a business 

In the meantime, Maphanga was still studying, completing her bachelor’s degree in in 2014 and an honours degree in geophysics a year later. She joined the mining sector, where she worked for two years. 

In her spare time, she was still  assisting her mom and her association members. In 2018 she joined the Farmers Network South Africa (FNSA), where she did IT work, and assisted the South African Farmers Development Association (SAFDA) in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, to build a website with information on their farmers. 

“That’s where I came to the realisation that there are a lot of big associations that normally just do workshops on the ground, but there is no online based type of help that they can offer their members,” she says.  

There are a lot of different careers. The value chain is big. We don’t all have to be farmers.” 

So, in 2018 she decided to establish a Facebook page to see how she can assist the farmers. “I started talking about market access and talking about different markets where you can take your produce and your products and then I realised a lot of people want funding. That’s when I started talking about funding and all those things on the page. We started with just 200 followers on Facebook and now we are sitting on more than 10 000 followers.”

Maphanga says one of the biggest challenges she experienced when she started her business was trying to educate and change the mindsets of smallholder and emerging farmers. Making people aware that a farm is also a business has been tough. 

She also adds that being a young woman in the agricultural sector is not easy. “Some farmers just won’t take your advice or listen to you because you are a woman and when I attend the boardroom meeting alone, they won’t trust what I bring to the table. I decided to bring in another person into the team who will do our stakeholder engagements. He is older and they can probably understand him better than they would me,” she says.  

Moments of breakthrough  

Apart from winning the Leaders in Innovation award and the Indalo Yethu Trust award in 2019 she was also selected to go to the UK to study at the Royal Academy of Engineering where she learnt more about technology commercialisation.  

Maphanga says her biggest inspiration is her mother. “I always tell people that my mother is the greatest scientist ever, although she never went to school. That woman knows everything about plant production, although she never studied plant production. She will just look at the tree and tell you it has a problem.” 

Her advice to aspiring young people who want to enter the agri space is to find their niche in the sector. 

“Agriculture has a lot of opportunities and there are a lot of careers that you can take within the sector because agriculture is broad. You can get into the industry and not become a farmer or sell agro-chemicals, you can get into the sector and do agricultural financing and you can get into the sector and do economics,” she says.  

There are a lot of different careers. The value chain is big. We don’t all have to be farmers.” 

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